When You’ve Lost A Spouse

Today hospice Chaplain Gary Roe talks about the loss of a spouse. This is something every married or partnered person will experience in their lifetime. If you have experienced the loss of a spouse you can find help not only from posts like Gary’s but also from a host of books available on the subject. Gary’s new book Heartbroken addresses this issue and organizations like the American Widower’s Organization and the W Connection, have informational books, articles and brochures to help you through your bereavement. If you are a widower you can download A Manual to Help Men Grieve from the American Widower’s Organization website or by clicking the title on this page. Widows can download The Myths of Widowhood: A Widow’s Survival Guide from the W Connection by visiting their website or clicking on the title on this page. We hope these books and this post bring some hope into the hearts of those who have lost a spouse. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

ID-100111764“I never dreamed anything could be so painful. It’s like my insides are being put through a meat grinder, or like half my heart has been ripped away,” Lorraine said, wringing a dishtowel as she stared into her lap.

Then, looking up into my eyes, she asked, “Where did he go? How could he leave? What am I supposed to do? How am I going to handle this? Who am I now?”

The questions go on and on.

He was your love. She was your partner. Now our hearts are broken. What are we going to do?

When we lose a spouse, it changes everything. They were woven into every nook and cranny of our lives and hearts. Nothing will be the same, nor should it be. The pain is excruciating. The fatigue is immense.

What do we do with all this? How can we navigate this in a healthy way? Is that even possible? Are we going crazy? Will we make it?

As a hospice chaplain, I’ve had the honor of walking with hundreds of widows and widowers through this deep valley over the past decade. Here’s a video about what came out of it:

Our emotions may be all over the map. They can hijack us in an instant. Anxiety, fear, confusion, sadness, anger, and depression are all a part of it. The intensity of our feelings honors the one we lost.

As we grieve, we learn to handle these crazy emotions. We discover that while our feelings are real, but they aren’t necessarily reality. We’re not crazy, but our situation might be.

910278_47990856Then there are all the relationships involved. People will make all the difference in our grief process, one way or the other. Some will be helpful, while others will not. Healthy grieving demands we spend time with those who are supportive and limit our exposure to those who aren’t. Many, if not all, of our relationships will change – partially because our status changed, and also because we ourselves are changing.

And what about the future? It must be remade. Rebuilding takes time, and we learn to trust the answers we need will be there when we’re ready. Until then, the best thing we can do for ourselves and those we love is to invest heavily in our own recovery and healing.

The time will come when we can lean forward. Until then, we move from wing to wing in the hospital of grief, healing as we go. Today is all we have for certain. Today we have life in every breath.

Gary has experienced a number of losses over the years and currently works as a writer, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. He is the author of Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One and Surviving the Holidays Without You. His newest release Heartbroken: Healing from the Loss of a Spouse is on sale through March 5, 2015 at his website and on Amazon. He also writes inspirational articles based on the stories of hospice patients for several newspapers. Visit him at www.garyroe.com.

What Is Right For You?

Today, we welcome Heidi Telpner back to the blog. Heidi is a hospice nurse who sees people through to the end of life. She has intimate knowledge of what families and individuals go through when experiencing the death of a loved one. She also understands the guilt that can assail those who have difficulty being with their loved ones at the end. Everyone has their own comfort zones and seeing a loved one pass can be outside of many people’s comfort zones. She’s here today to remind us that it’s okay if this isn’t something you can handle. You shouldn’t allow guilt to exacerbate your grief. Instead, focus on the good memories and celebrate your loved one’s life. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

A friend, a dear friend, died recently. He’d battled cancer for three years, outliving the doctors’ prognosis by two and a half years. He was that stubborn. And he’d done well until the last three months of his life. Up until the very end, he tweeted from his hospital bed. He never lost his sense of humor, his warmth, his ability to reach out across time and distance to touch his friends.

He truly was a rare individual. He was a man I am privileged to call, not only a friend, but a soul mate.

Because I’m a hospice nurse, he and I spent many hours talking on Gmail and G-chat about death. He knew what to expect, he was well-prepared. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be at his bedside when he died because he lives in England while I live in the States. It broke my heart to be so far away, but had I been by his side his death would have hit me equally hard, probably harder, because his death would have been absolutely real to me. Sitting here, in my home in California, I can still pretend he’s alive. I can tell myself he just doesn’t tweet me or beep me every day. It’s a luxury families don’t have.

I have to be honest. I’m glad I wasn’t there. I did think about it. Seriously. I gave serious consideration to flying overseas to be with him and his family. But the truth is, I didn’t want to be there.

I may be a hospice nurse, and I can compartmentalize when it comes to my patients, but I have to force myself to be at the bedside of a loved one. I get too upset. Death hits me hard. I cannot even be present when a beloved pet is put down.I can’t do it. Is this a failing? I ask myself that question all the time.

ID-10090995The answer is, no, it’s not a failing. I can be strong for my patients. Even when I like them, feel connected to them, have affection for them, they are not my family and friends. But while I can detach from the deaths of my patients – the many deaths – I cannot detach from the death of a loved one. I may seem professional, and I am, but underneath that professional veneer, I am an emotional person. I can’t watch someone I love die. And I don’t want to see the body afterwards. I don’t. Doesn’t matter how many bodies I’ve seen in my role as a hospice nurse. The death of a loved one is a different animal altogether.

I’m not in denial. I know the person is dead, but avoidance is my coping mechanism. I want to remember a loved one as a living breathing human being. Not as dust to dust. Don’t even talk to me about funerals. I go, but I’m terrible. I cannot watch a casket lowered into the ground. The finality is too much for me.

Everyone handles the death of a loved one differently. My husband is amazing at the bedside. He’s lost both his parents- both died prematurely- and he was there for the deaths. I hid in the hospital’s hallway. Believe me, I was supportive, but I could not be in the room.

My dear friend’s family was a combination of my husband’s strength and my weakness. His wife stayed by his side the entire time, as did his oldest daughter. His youngest daughter could not bring herself to even pass through the hospital doors, yet I know how much both daughters loved their father.

We can love people and still find it overwhelming to watch them die. Or to view their dead body.

I don’t judge. The families of my patients are all different. I’m there for my patient but sometimes family members can’t be present for any number of reasons, reasons that have nothing to do with love.

I guarantee your loved one understands.

Heidi Telpner, R.N.Heidi is author of One Foot in Heaven, available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and now available in audiobook format at Audible.com. Heidi accidentally stumbled into nursing twenty-seven years ago and she never stumbled out. She’s been a hospice nurse for the last nine of those twenty-seven years. Her initial training was as a midwife. She now midwifes her patients out the other end of life. Ms. Telpner and her husband live on the West Coast. They have three children, a dog, three cats, two birds and one lucky koi.

Why We Grieve Differently

Today we have a reprint of an article by Dr. Louis LaGrand. When Dr. LaGrand first gave us permission to reprint his articles a few years ago, it was with the hope that they would reach new readers, people who were in need of something to help them cope with their bereavement. It is our goal that these posts bring understanding, peace and hope to those of you reading them. Feel free to leave us comments about what you liked and what you would like more of on the blog. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

Lou-LaGrand_59374Have you ever been pressured by family members or friends to grieve according to their agendas? Or have you been told you should find closure and be over “it” by now? Such remarks spring from ignorance of the fact that there are an untold number of grieving styles. No two people grieve the same way.

How we grieve and mourn (go public with our grief) is an exclusively personal and highly individual process because of a large number of variables woven into our complex grieving style. Let’s examine a number of these variables in order to better understand why each person should be allowed to grieve at their pace and in their way.

1. Early Childhood experiences. How did you first learn about death? What stories were told and how did the adults respond to death, dying, and mourning? What did they say or not say, especially in a nonverbal manner? Did your first encounter result is seeing death as an enemy, friend, inevitable, or scary? And most important, what did you pick up from those in your circle of friends as you were growing up? Many of those early images sit in your unconscious and have an effect on the way you cope with the loss of a loved one.

2. Religious beliefs, the media, and readings all play a part in our current view of death and how we grieve. Consider what you have learned, good or bad, from watching hours of television including horror shows. What has your minister, priest, or rabbi communicated about death and an afterlife? And then consider what you have read about death in the newspaper, books, or magazines.

3. The nature of the death and who died. How the death one is grieving occurred, and who is the person who died, plays another significant role in how we grieve. Sudden and unexpected deaths are bound to bring intense and longer grief responses. Murder, suicide, car accidents, combat deaths, drug overdoses, or other accidental deaths have their own added burdens that mourners must deal with. The death of a child, sibling, parent, ex, spouse, friend, or multiple deaths can bring a very different response. Grief can become especially complicated when a body cannot be found.

4. The degree of emotional investment in the deceased. An extremely important factor in how one grieves is the nature of the relationship with the person who died. Was there total dependence on the deceased? Was there a hostile relationship or an ambiguous (love/hate) one? Nobody except the bereaved person knows the true depth and meaning of the relationship. And what affect will the loss of the loved one have on the bereaved’s social relationships? Could survivor’s guilt be involved?

5. The mourner’s health and personality characteristics. Energy levels, stamina, previous bouts with depression, and general positive or negative attitudes prior to the death must also be considered in how one mourns. So too, nutrition, amount of sleep, exercise, coping behaviors, and ability to deal with stress will also play a part. Any of the above can add to or minimize the amount of unnecessary suffering and intense pain being felt.

ID-100551376. Social support system. The mourner’s perception of his/her support system has a major affect on the course of grief work. If the person believes no one understands and feels isolated or hurried in their grief work, much additional pain has to be dealt with. On the other hand, realizing you have many people to rely on and turn to can spur confidence that you can manage the great loss. Here is where one’s culture also plays a role in how a mourner responds.

7. The meaning of the loss. Trying to find meaning in why the loss occurred, whether it could have been prevented, and will it be in vane can be especially important factors in the length of grief work. Finding a satisfactory explanation for the death with all the details is often a difficult task that takes much time and thought and cannot be rushed.

To summarize, all of the above and more is involved in the beliefs we form and the expectations we have about death, dying, and grieving. There is a complex web of influences from our past that we bring to how we grieve in the present. And, there are many variables surrounding the death that adds to how it is mourned.

Let us honor the history of each person and allow them to grieve and express their feelings and thoughts. Be patient with those who are mourning. Endure with them. Make every effort to view their grief from their perspective. It is a unique grief, a special relationship, and their needs that have to be met.

Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is http://www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com.

Article reprinted with the permission of Dr. LaGrand.

Stewarding Children’s Grief/Helping Families Heal Together

Today’s post is a reprint of a very timely article by the wonderful Tom Golden that was published in griefHaven’s most recent newsletter. The article touched on some topics that I felt our readers here would benefit from so I reached out to Susan Whitmore at griefHaven to ask permission to reprint the article. Susan got back to me right away with permission as griefHaven’s purpose is to be there for anyone in need. The folks at griefHaven are more than gracious for letting us reprint this great article which we feel will help all who read it. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

tomgoldenThere is tremendous diversity in the way we choose to heal from grief. We each have our own path, and gender is, of course, just one of the many factors involved in the direction that path may take. The question arises, “How can we honor such diversity within a family unit at a time of great loss?” Each person within the family may very well have a different way of healing themselves. Some persons may have a great need to talk, others may need to connect their grief with action, while another might be quietly healing in his or her own private manner. This diversity can often lead to trouble in the family, with barbs being thrown or held in consciousness about some other family member not grieving in the “right” way. This article is meant to get us started in examining some ideas about healing grief within our family.

My son and I were playing a friendly game of catch. As I tossed him the ball, I noticed the mitt he was wearing. It had been my father’s baseball glove which he had used when I was in Little League. I remembered the many times my father had gone to Little League games and coached or hit fly balls us. Sports was not really his forte, but he made sure to be a part of my life. A scientist and researcher with NASA, he was a dedicated father who enjoyed spending time with his three children and involving himself with their separate interests.

Luke, my seven-year-old son, had chosen that particular glove as his own, perhaps because it was old and very flexible and perhaps it was due to it having been his grandfather’s. This glove has given us many opportunities to talk about my father and his recent death. As we toss the ball back and forth, it is a link into my father and his history. Luke and I have had many of these conversations, usually quick and to the point. Luke might make a particularly good catch and then say it was the glove that helped him with such a spectacular play. I the might say, “Yeah, that’s a special glove. I sure do miss Granddaddy.” Luke agrees and points out that he misses his sense of humor; the game goes on. These short interludes serve us both as a way to remember and honor our pain at the loss of my father, and his grandfather. Healing grief is a matter of chipping away at the potent feelings over and over again. Taking small chunks during an activity such as playing catch is certainly a valid form of healing.

fishing“We need to be open with our kids about our grief in a way that helps them to see that we are grieving. When we allow our kids to see our grief, we give them the best teaching we could give: a role model. This can be helpful to both parents and children.”
My daughter Julia (13 years old) has a very different way of approaching her pain. Julia will approach me and request “special time,” meaning we are to sit and talk about something. She says, “I miss Granddaddy,” and proceeds to talk of her feelings of loss. She already has the agenda and will happily orchestrate the conversation. This, too, is a valid form of healing.

A part of the reason for the difference between Julia and Luke is their age. Julia is more developed physically/psychologically and has a more sophisticated understanding of her emotions. But there is also a difference that has to do with gender. Luke loves to do things and maybe talk some while we are actively participating together. I learn more about Luke and his life while we are wrestling than any other time. We will be grunting and groaning as we push at each other’s body, and all of a sudden, he will stop and say something about his day. Just as quickly we are back at it again. This pattern continues with brief flashes of self-disclosure during activities. Julia, however, doesn’t seem to need the activity. She needs the emotional contact and attention. Both ways are healing; both need to be honored. Although I believe this is a gender difference, it could easily go the other way, with my daughter preferring activity and my son more inclined to talk. It is not that boys do it one way and girls another. It is that as parents we are responsible for finding our children’s individual gifts in healing themselves and then helping them use it. Grief is a potent force, and we need to find ways to steward our children’s connection with feelings of loss and their healing.

“Make sure that the name of the person who died is spoken in your household.”

Make sure that the name of the person who died is spoken in your household. If the name is not spoken, it sets up a situation where it seems that the topic of this person is not one that is open for conversation.

Grief is no different than any other process that children learn. As parents, we steward our children’s anger, homework, sexuality, social skills, bathroom behavior, and a long list of many others. We tend to be more active in our assistance with the younger ones and expect more from children as they grow and mature. We make decisions about what the child needs to know at any given time and find ways to teach them the next level when they are ready. Homework might be a good example. Think of a very young child and how you help them with their studies. Usually we tend to be more active in finding an appropriate place for them to work and are also active in our help with their learning. As the child grows older, we expect and teach different things. We do less of the actual work and more teaching skills in how to work. This is stewardship. We give to them what they need at any given time based on our understanding of their individual qualities and their level of development.

Stewarding a child’s grief is the same. We adjust our approach to their pain based on their level of development and our assessment of their needs. But stewarding grief is a tough task for parents who are actively grieving. It is often a time when our “parent” energy to teach, help, and engage our kids is at an all time low. We too are in need of healing. The saving grace, however, is that by stewarding our children’s grief we ourselves heal. Each time I have a burst of a conversation with Luke about my father or each time Julia asks me for “special time,” I get in touch with my grief and loss. By stewarding I am also healing. Sometimes parents want to hide their feelings of grief and loss from their kids. Occasionally this can be appropriate, but usually if the parent holds back it stops the healing for both parent and child. The kids sense that there is something not being said and will pick up that this “holding back” must be the adult way to do things. We need to be open with our kids about our grief in a way that helps them to see that we are grieving. When we allow our kids to see our grief, we give them the best teaching we could give: a role model. This can be helpful to both parents and children. With this said, let’s look at a couple of ideas of ways families can heal together.

Suggestions: How to Steward Your Child’s Grief

EduardoEduardo and Son Bautista – Argentina

ONE: The first idea is to make sure that the name of the person who died is spoken in your household. Speaking the name of the person has a powerful effect. If the name is not spoken, it sets up a situation where it seems that the topic of this person (or pet) is not one that is open for conversation. Saying the name out loud states clearly that the topic is indeed open. Children will respond to this in their own way. Watch carefully how they respond and you will learn their ways of healing.

Speaking the name can manifest in a number of ways. It does not have to be on a rigid schedule or formally spoken. The best ways I have found are to bring up my father’s name in spontaneous situations. For example, as we are having dinner I might mention my father’s love of something related to what we are talking about. This gives a green light for the kids (or the adults) to speak up if they wish, or to remain silent; both are acceptable. Sometimes kids have very introverted ways of healing and can benefit from listening to another’s conversation. We need to honor all ways. Another way of speaking the name is to include the person’s name in the prayers you use, such as requesting special blessings for this person or using a prayer that may have been a favorite of theirs.

TWO: A related idea is to have pictures of the person who died in different places in your home. In my house we have pictures of my father on the refrigerator, stuck to some cabinets, and in some other spots. This has a similar effect as speaking the name. It includes and honors the person who died and gives a similar green light for discussion and healing.

HollowayHolloway Celebration of Life

THREE: Creating family activities in honor of the person who died is a great way to accommodate all of the differences within your family. The activity allows both a place to talk about the loss and an opportunity to connect one’s action with the grief. Let’s say the person who died loved fishing. In this case you might plan a family activity for everyone to go fishing. You make it clear that this trip is in honor of the person who died. On the trip you make sure that the person’s name is spoken and that the participants know the nature of the honoring. If conversations come up about the person, then that is great; if not, that is okay too.

Doing something together as a family in honor of the person who died is healing in itself. What generally happens is that the kids get into it in their own ways. In my family Luke would say that he is going to catch the biggest fish for Granddaddy. In that way he connects the trip and his action (fishing) with his grief for his grandfather. There is healing in this. The activity provides a “ground” in which the entire family can plant the seeds of their grief in their own way. Some family members may talk and cry about the loss, while others may connect their pain and tears with their goal to catch the biggest fish. This same idea is important with regard to holidays and anniversaries. There are many ways to honor the person who died, and you can use your creativity to find an activity that fits your family.

WhitmoresinCanadaWhitmores In Canada With Erika – One of Her Favorite Spots That They Have Visited Since Her Death

FOUR: A traditional form of the activity idea is that of visiting the grave. But often this is impractical due to distance or other reasons. The kids also sometimes think it is “dumb.” A variation on this is to create a place that becomes linked to the person who died. Maybe that person had a favorite spot, or maybe your family has a beautiful spot that everyone enjoys visiting. As a parent you can link that spot with the person who died. You can declare it a spot that the person who died loved (or would have loved), and your family visits there can include the memories of this person. It might be a waterfall, or like a family I know, an amusement park. No words need be spoken as long as the family knows the link has been made. Most times I think you will find that the person becomes a topic of discussion when visiting that place.

Another family I know created a needlework (counted cross-stitch) memorial in honor of a family member who had died. The father laid out the pattern, and the mother and children did the sewing. With the help of the kids, the father made a frame, and the needlework was dedicated to the person who died and put in a place of honor in the family home. It was a family project that used everyone’s energy and involved everyone in the healing process. The examples could go on and on: one family put together a video, another created a sculpture for their yard. The important point is that these families found a project that could be used as a means of honoring the person who died while at the same time giving the family a joint space to honor their grief. By doing things together as a family in honor of the person who died you are creating a healing space for the whole family. As parents we need to find a variety of ways to help ourselves and our family heal our grief and pain.

By doing it together, we not only heal, we come closer as a family unit.

Tom Golden LCSW, is an author, speaker, and psychotherapist and wrote the book Swallowed By a Snake. Tom’s area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. Tom has been working in the field of death and dying for over thirty years. Tom’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report and also on CNN, CBS Evening News, ESPN and the NFL Channel. He is a member of the newly created Maryland Commission for Men’s Health. Tom presently lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland with his wife of thirty years. He delights in both his daughter and his son.

GriefHaven was founded by Susan Whitmore after the death of her daughter Erika Whitmore Godwin. The Erika Whitmore Godwin Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, has five primary goals: (1) to provide hope and support to any parent who loses a child; (2) to support siblings, family members, and friends impacted by the death of a child; (3) to educate the public about the loss of a child, letting them know how they can support parents in rebuilding their lives; (4) to educate and collaborate with professionals who deal with the death of a child; and, (5) to provide ways for parents to honor their child. The foundation and griefHaven is dedicated to maintaining a positive and nurturing work environment. In this way, our process aligns with what we deliver — hope, compassion, and love.

Photos courtesy of griefHaven.

The Shock of Grief and What We Can Do About It

It is true that no two people grieve alike. It is also true that many people go through the same emotions, or stages, with regard to grief. It’s no wonder that grief can be complicated and difficult to deal with. Today, Chaplain Gary Roe talks about some things we can do to help alleviate the shock of grief. His words reminded me that children and teens may process grief differently than adults and an unexpected death can be more difficult to deal with and understand than a death from a long illness. Gary’s words give hope to the bereaved that they can process their grief and come to terms with it. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.  

1198063_85215095Jeff was a good friend. He sat in front of me in seventh grade English. He was quiet, respectful, and smart. He was easy to be with.

The day after Christmas break, Jeff was absent. He wasn’t there the next day either. The third day, the principal came in, looking somber.

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” she said. “Jeff got very sick with spinal meningitis during Christmas. He didn’t make it.”

I stared at her in shock. I dropped my eyes and gazed at the empty desk in front of me. “He didn’t make it,” echoed over and over in my mind.

The rest of the day was a blur. I kept thinking, “This can’t be real.”

It was real, all right. It just wasn’t real for me yet.

Loss hits us that way. We can’t digest it. It feels surreal, as if life suddenly stopped and abruptly changed direction. It’s like a dream, or a nightmare. We wonder when we’re going to wake up.

For several weeks, I dreaded going to English class. I would ease into my seat, hyper-aware of the empty desk in front of me. I had trouble concentrating. I didn’t know it, but I was still in shock.

Shock is a part of healthy grief, and it can last a while. It can come and go over a period of months, triggered by certain memories or situations.

616689_60315228We feel for our loved one next to us in the bed. We expect to hear them in the kitchen. We find ourselves looking for them, wondering where they are. Their fragrance lingers here and there. Our houses, and our lives, seem unnaturally quiet.

We long to hear their voice. We miss their touch. We hunger to look into their eyes. We miss everything.
Our lives have been altered forever. How could we not be in shock?

What can we do? How do we get out of this daze?

1. Don’t be in a hurry. Your grief, and the shock of it, honors the one you’ve lost. It proclaims how important they are to you. You’re never going to get over them (you’re not supposed to), but you will get through this time.
2. Be nice to yourself and patient with yourself. This time is unlike any other. Things aren’t normal and routine, so don’t expect yourself to be either.
3. Do what’s best for you, and let the world keep spinning. When my father died (I was fifteen), I got very angry that the world dared to go about its business as if nothing had happened. Right now, it’s almost as if someone pushed the pause button on your life. That’s okay. Do what’s best for you, and try not to worry about the circus around you.

So when your loss is triggered by that fragrance, song, or special place, take a deep breath. The shock you feel is real, and normal. Let it come, and let it pass on through. Then ask yourself, “What do I need most right now?”

Chaplain Gary Roe has experienced a number of losses over the years and currently works as a writer, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. He is the author of Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One and Surviving the Holidays Without You. His necxt book, Heartbroken: Healing from the Loss of a Spouse, is due out in February and documents the struggles and challenges of widows and widowers. The book is drawn from dozens of comments from those who have lost a spouse. Gary also writes inspirational articles based on the stories of hospice patients for several newspapers. Visit him at www.garyroe.com.

Photos courtesy FreeImages.com, Rosika.